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Destination Recreation: Smugglers' Notch 

click to enlarge Boardwalk to the beaver pond - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • heather fitzgerald
  • Boardwalk to the beaver pond

I've driven through Smugglers' Notch, the Mount Mansfield pass that connects Jeffersonville to Stowe, many times. But recently, when a friend came to visit, we decided to make the Notch itself our destination.

As long as you're not driving a tractor-trailer, the road alone — Route 108 — is enjoyable, though it gets very narrow at the top. The Longstreet Highroad Guide to the Vermont Mountains describes how numerous rock falls and debris slides have occurred in the Notch since the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago. Two events in the 1980s dropped bus-sized boulders there. This kind of "unruly behavior" is typical of mountain landscapes scoured by glaciers.

The dramatic geologic history of the area is apparent not only in the steep-walled cliffs and boulders, but also in the patches of young birches you'll find along the road. These trees replaced the more mature forests that were destroyed by the 1980s boulder incidents.

click to enlarge Heather's son, Jesse, taking a break while hiking the Smugglers' Cave loop - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • heather fitzgerald
  • Heather's son, Jesse, taking a break while hiking the Smugglers' Cave loop

During our drive through the Notch in July, we took time to check out two spots along Route 108. At the pull-off for the Smugglers' Notch Visitor Center near the top of the notch, right under the towering cliffs, you can access a short, rocky loop that goes right by Smugglers' Cave, which has a few entrances that are all fun to explore. Just watch out for the slippery rocks worn smooth by visitors. Right off the trail, you'll also find opportunities for boulder-hopping and crevice-squeezing, which involved just enough difficulty to feel exciting to my 11-year-old but safe to this cautious mom. If you go on the weekend, aim to arrive early because the parking lot often fills up.

If it's a warm day, search out the dramatic cold air pockets next to some of the boulders. Cold air, which is heavier than warm air, settles down in the spaces between the rocks, where it is protected from the wind — creating natural air conditioning.

The other stop I recommend is just north of the entrances to Stowe Mountain Resort. Look for the parking area and the Barnes Camp Visitor Center, a large brown building. It's staffed by volunteers Friday through Sunday in the summer and fall, but you can park at the lot any day of the week and follow an accessible boardwalk on a several-minute jaunt to a beaver pond.

At the end of the boardwalk is a beavers' dam. Follow a fallen log with your eyes about 50 feet out into the pond and you'll see a lodge. Both the dam and lodge are made of sticks and mud.

Once you've found these, you can see if anyone's home at the time of your visit. If the water level is up to the top of the dam, and you see pointy blond beaver-gnawed stumps, each a few inches in diameter, along the shore, the pond is likely occupied. If the water level has dropped below the top of the dam, there is vegetation growing on the pond side of the dam and you can only find gray chewed stumps, the beavers have probably moved on. Their preferred winter food is pole-sized hardwoods. (In spring and summer they eat fresh green plants — wouldn't you?)

click to enlarge Beavers' lodge in the drained pond - HEATHER FITZGERALD
  • heather fitzgerald
  • Beavers' lodge in the drained pond

The day we visited, two beavers swam right up to the boardwalk to investigate us in the middle of the afternoon and gave us a few dramatic tail slaps when we ventured too close. I'm not sure if they lived there, or if they were just passing through; when I returned several weeks later, they were nowhere to be found and the water level was low.

Nearby, another beaver pond has drained, so an adventurous hiker could clamber off trail and explore the usually inaccessible beaver dams and lodges in a way few landlubbers get to do.

Each of these excursions can take a few minutes to a few hours, depending on how much exploring you want to do.

If your family likes to hike, you could even add a trip to Sterling Pond, Vermont's highest elevation trout pond at 3,000 feet. The trailhead is across the road from the Smugglers' Notch Visitor Center, and it takes about an hour and a half to hike the steep 1.1-mile trail to the pond.

Whatever you choose, Smugglers' Notch is worth stopping for.

SMugglers' Notch, Vermont Route 108, Jeffersonville and Stowe
Heather Fitzgerald teaches field ecology and environmental science at the Community College of Vermont and the University of Vermont.

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